Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith




(Mildly Recommended)




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Alexander McCall Smith presents his second installment featuring Isabel Dalhousie in his new book, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate. His meandering plot and disconnected dialogue made me feel somewhat fogged in, as on a cloudy day in Edinburgh. In the first installment, The Sunday Philosophy Club, the plot moved better because Isabel was focused on solving a murder. In Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, I felt that I was hanging out with Isabel, but neither of us had a clue about what was going on from one day to the next. Smith, a prolific installment writer, may be in no hurry to get on with things, but many readers prefer better focus than is found here. Isabel’s curiosity can be enchanting, but there was too little of it in this book. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter Three, pp. 24-30:


Of course it was much better in the clear light of day. When she went downstairs the following morning, Isabel might not have forgotten about her momentary weakness, hut at least she was back in control of herself. She knew that what she had experienced the previous evening was a sudden rush of emotion—the emotion in question being jealousy, no less. Emo­tional states of this sort came on quickly and were difficult to manage when first experienced, but the whole point about being a rational actor was that one could assert control. She, Isabel Dalhousie, was quite capable of holding negative emo­tions in check and sending them back to where they belonged. Now, where was that? In the dark reaches of the Freudian id? She smiled at the thought. How well-named was the id— a rough, un-house-trained, shadowy thing, wanting to do all those anarchic deeds that the ego and super-ego frowned upon. Much Freudian theory was scientifically shaky, even if it was such a literary treat to read, but Isabel had always thought that of all the Freudian conceits the id was probably the most credi­ble. The bundle of urges and wants that went with being a physical being: the need for food, the need to reproduce——those two alone were enough to cause any amount of difficulty, and indeed were at the bottom of most disputes between people. Arguments over space, food, and sex: id business. This is what humanity’s conflicts were eventually reduced to.

By the time she had prepared her coffee, the whole affair had been sorted out and defused, It was natural to feel jealousy over those for whom one had a particular affection, and so it was perfectly natural that she should have felt the way she had when she saw Jamie with that girl. The sight had brought it home to her that Jamie was not hers; she may feel strongly about him, but that feeling could never be allowed to change the fact that there was between them nothing more than friendship.

She had hoped that Jamie and Cat would get together again, but she knew full well how unrealistic that hope was.

Jamie must come to understand this sooner or later, and that meant that he would look for somebody else, as any young man would do, That girl at the concert, with her posture of adoration for Jamie, would probably be ideal. It would probably mean the loss of the comfortable intimacy which Isabel and Jamie cur­rently enjoyed. That was to be regretted, of course, but the right thing for her to do would be to take pleasure in whatever happi­ness it brought Jamie. It would be like freeing a bird that one had temporarily held captive. The bird catcher may feel sad at the loss of his companion, but he must think only of the happi­ness of the released creature. That is what she must do: it was obvious. She must try to like that young woman and then let Jamie go with her blessing.


Isabel had finished her first cup of coffee and eaten her morning allocation of two slices of toast and marmalade by the time that her housekeeper, Grace, arrived. Grace, who was a woman of roughly Isabel’s age, had kept house for Isabel’s father and now did the same for her. She was a woman of clear views, who had never married—in spite of what she described as innu­merable offers—and Isabel often used her as a sounding board for ideas and opinions. On many issues they tended not to agree, but Isabel enjoyed Grace’s perspective, which was almost always a surprising one.

“I may not be a philosopher,” Grace once pointed out, “but I have no difficulty in knowing where I stand. I cannot under­stand all this doubt.”

“But we have to doubt,” said Isabel. “Thinking is doubting. It amounts to the same thing.”

Grace’s retort had come quickly “It certainly does not. I think about something, and then I make up my mind. Doubt doesn’t come into it.”

“Well,” said Isabel, “people differ. You’re lucky that you’re so certain. I’m more given to doubt. Maybe it’s a question of temperament.”

That morning, Isabel was not in the mood for an exchange of this nature, and so she confined herself to a question about Grace’s nephew, Bruce. This young man was a Scottish nation­alist, who believed firmly in the independence of Scotland. Grace herself had at times been influenced by his fervour, and muttered darkly about London, but this had never lasted. She was by nature a conservative, and the Union was something too settled to do anything radical about.

“Bruce is off to some political rally” she answered. “They go up to Bannockburn every year and listen to speeches. They get all whipped up, but then they come home again and go off about their business like everybody else. It’s a hobby for him, I suppose. He used to collect stamps, and then he took up nationalism.”

Isabel smiled. “Such a striking-looking boy in his kilt and his bonnet. And Bruce is such a good name, isn’t it, for a patriot? Could one be a convincing Scottish nationalist if one were called, say, Julian?”

“Probably not,” said Grace. “Did you know, by the way that they’re also talking about a boycott of the railways until they stop referring to English breakfasts in their restaurant cars?”

“So much for them to do,” mused Isabel. “Such a construc­tive contribution to national life.”

“Of course they do have a point,” said Grace. “Look at the way Scotland’s been treated. How does the song go? Such a par­cel of rogues in a nation .

Isabel steered the conversation away from the subject of Bruce.

“I saw Jamie with a girl last night,” she said simply, watch­ing for Grace’s reaction as she spoke.

“Another girl?”

“Yes,” she said. “A girl at a concert.”

Grace nodded. “Well, that doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “I’ve seen them too.”

Isabel was silent for a moment; the pronounced beating of the heart the physical manifestation of the emotion. Then: “With a blond-haired girl? Tall?”


Of course it would be the same girl, and she should not have felt any surprise. But she asked for details, nonetheless, and Grace explained.

“It was near the university. There’s a café there near the hack of the museum. They put tables out in the good weather and people sit out and drink coffee. They were there, at a table. They didn’t see me as I walked past. But it was Jamie and a girl. This girl.”

“I know the place you’re talking about,” said Isabel. “It has a strange name. Iguana, or something like that.”

“Everything has a strange name these days,” said Grace.

Isabel said nothing. The feeling of the previous evening had momentarily returned—a feeling of utter emptiness and of being alone. It was not an unfamiliar feeling, of course. She remembered that when she had first realised that John Liamor was being unfaithful to her, with a girl who had come to Cam­bridge from Dublin to talk to him about his research, this is what she had felt. It was the feeling of having something taken away from her, out of her, like being winded. But John Liamor was her past, and she was getting over him. For years she had been in his thrall, bound to thoughts of him, unable to trust men as a result. Should she now allow herself to be caught up in something which had the same risk of pain and rejection? Of course not.

Grace was watching her. She knows, thought Isabel. She knows. It is that transparent, the disappointment of the woman who has learnt that her young lover is behaving exactly as a young lover should be expected to behave—except that Jamie and I are not lovers.

“It had to happen,” said Grace suddenly looking down at the floor as she spoke. “He would have gone back to Cat if she would have had him, but she wouldn’t. So what is he to do? Men don’t wait any more.”

Isabel was staring out of the window. There was a clematis climbing up the wall that divided her garden from next door, and it was in full flower now, large blossoms of striated pink. Grace thought that she was concerned about Cat; she had not worked out that this was personal distress. And indeed there was every reason for Grace to think that, Isabel reflected, because other­wise she would have to conclude that this was a case of an aunt—yes, an aunt—falling for the boyfriend of the niece, which was an altogether unseemly thing to do, and not the sort of thing that happened in Grace’s Edinburgh. But aunts have ids, she thought, and then smiled at the thought. There would be no emptiness any more, because she would again will herself to be pleased.

“You’re quite right,” said Isabel. “Jamie could hardly be expected to wait for ever. I despair of Cat.” She paused before adding, “And I hope that this girl, whoever she is, is good for him.” The sentiment sounded trite, but then didn’t most good sentiments sound trite? It was hard to make goodness—and good people—sound interesting. Yet the good were worthy of note, of course, because they battled and that battle was a great story, whereas the evil were evil because of moral laziness, or weakness, and that was ultimately a dull and uninteresting affair.

“Let’s hope,” said Grace, who had now opened a cupboard and was extracting a vacuum cleaner. As she brought it out and began to unwind the electric cord, she half turned to look at Isabel.

“I thought that you might be upset,” she said. “You and Jamie are so close. I thought that you might be. . .”

Isabel supplied the word. “Jealous?”

Grace frowned. “If you put it that way Sorry to think that, it’s just that when I walked past that table the other day that’s how I felt. I don’t want her to have him. He’s ours, you see.”

Isabel laughed. “Yes, he is ours, or so we like to think. But he isn’t really, is he? I had a dove. Do you know that line? The poet has a dove, and the sweet dove dies. But it could equally well fly away”

Your Mr. W. H. Auden?”

“Oh no, not him. But he did write about love quite a lot. And I suppose he must have felt very jealous, because he had a friend who went off with other people and all the time Auden was waiting in the background. It must have been very sad for him.”

“It’s all very sad,” said Grace. “It always is.”

Isabel thought about this. She would not allow herself to be sad; how sad to be sad. So she stood up briskly and rubbed her hands. “I’m going to have a scone with my coffee,” she said. “Would you like one too?”


If you found this excerpt charming and interesting, you’re likely to enjoy the rest of Friends, Lovers, Chocolate.


Steve Hopkins, April 24, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2006 issue of Executive Times


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